How sad to come across his obituary in Church Times: Harry Blamires (1916-2017), who we once referred to on this blog as our oldest living usage guide writer, died on 21 November last year. The obituary lists his many achievements, and sums up what he will be remembered for. But for us he will be remembered as the author of The Queen’s English: The Essential Companion to Written English, published in 1994 and included in our HUGE database of usage guides and usage problems.
If people think singular they is a new feature in the English language, arising out of the need to express gender neutrality: it isn’t. There was already an article about the pronoun in 1975, by Ann Bodine. Very well worth reading, I find, even forty years on. But there is also a whole chapter in a novel that deals with the issue, already in 1991: the opening chapter in Julian Barnes’s Talking it over. The usage, as the chapter shows, was already felt worthy of being defended in the the early 1990s.
In other words, it hasn’t ceased to amaze me why singular they was pronounced word of the year by the American Dialect Society in January 2016, since the form already got recognition from both scholars and literary authors long before that time. Or why people keep on complaining about its use. As Bodine argues, if the English pronoun system hadn’t been modelled on that of Latin, it would have included singular they as an alternative to he or she from the early days of the codification of grammar onwards. And from the point of view of this project, there would have been one less usage problem to bicker about. So let’s just accept it and go on using it, even in our writing.
Bodine, Ann. 1975. Androcentrism in prescriptive grammar: Singular “they”, sex-indefinite “he”, and “he or she”’. Language in Society 4, 129-146.
Good to know that the etiquette guide is still going strong, and still focusing on women’s social skills:
“There is a course on ‘personal and professional impact’ for women, which emphasises body language, presentation and effective communication.”
You can read more about strange English habits in the Guardian‘s long read.
Have a good holiday!
The most frequent hit on our blog at this time of the year is to Carmen Ebner’s post on the question of where to place the apostrophe (if at all) in “Season’s greeetings”. Well, here is something different for all those interested in usage guides and usage advice, and on the question of whether usage guides are ever consulted in the first place: some light and very short reading from OUP’s blog post in case you get bored over the long Christmas weekend: four days in this country! With all best wishes for the new year from all of us!
Is this what language planning looks like in the modern world?
It’s not every day you discover a new word, or at least a new meaning for an old word. But when the Guardian asked its readers to contribute their favourite dialect words, it discovered not one, but two.
“Webs” and “trabs” – both of which can mean trainers and were contributed from Liverpool – were just two of the dialectal words and phrases contributed by Guardian readers following an article about the British Library’s Evolving English WordBank.
You can see the whole article here.
… the publication of the second major collection of papers from the Bridging the Unbridgeable project, which appeared yesterday!
Thanks to all authors for their wonderful contributions: copies are on their way and should reach you soon. We also very grateful to all the people at OUP who helped to make this publication possible. And for anyone interested in the book’s topic: please order your copy from OUP.